March 1, 2021 Summary

HIGHLIGHTS: Dr. Killion’s “State of the Schools” Address (5:35), Class Size and Teacher Retention (6:22), Higher Spending on Construction because of Cost Increases (6:42), Recent School District Borrowing was not Illegal (6:48), No Ability to Borrow for 18 Years (6:59), Killion wants Happy Hollow remodeled into an Early Childhood Education Center (7:47), Working Together with School Administrators (7:56), Proposed Changes to the Jr/Sr HS Schedule (8:12), Transferring other School Funds to Pay for Construction (8:45), Before- and After-School Program (8:50)

Location: West Lafayette Intermediate School

Streaming: YouTube Thanks to those involved behind the scenes with the technology – the audio at WLIS worked well and was appreciated!

YouTube Time Stamps: 

  • 0:00-1:46 and 2:14-2:39 Killion’s State of the Schools Address
  • 2:39-3:08 WL Jr/Sr HS Schedule Change Proposal
  • 3:08-3:42  Regular School Board Meeting

Attendance: 7 of 7 School Board Members (Alan Karpick, Karen Springer, Bradley Marley, Thomas Schott, Rachel Witt, Amy Austin, Yue Yin via zoom); Ross Sloat, Interim CFO; Stephen Ohlhaut, Assistant to the CFO; Robert Reiling, Jr., Lawyer; Rocky Killion, Superintendent 

Audience: Several school administrators, teachers union leaders, teachers, community members, State Rep. Sheila Klinker, and several parents.

5:33 – Karpick welcomed us to the work session and said that Killion would give a “state of our schools” address to educate the new board members. I was excited to attend this school board work session and am pleased that they advertised it through facebook and some of the parent council newsletters. Work sessions are public. As stated on our school board calendar, they are an “opportunity for board members to study and discuss specific topics in depth.” I had anticipated hearing more from our elected school board members as they discussed issues and asked questions. Unfortunately, the almost 3-hour work session was more of a lecture than a discussion, but Killion did share a lot of information about our school district and the Jr/Sr HS administrators explained the proposed changes to the Jr/Sr HS schedule.

5:35 – Killion shared a slide presentation that he said would be made available on the website once his staff made it ADA compliant. He shared how grateful he is to have his voice back. He explained that the purpose of his presentation is for new board members Yin and Austin to be better informed about the state of our schools. He said that a district committee created a strategic plan that provides a focus on how to improve our schools. Our school district consists of just 3 square miles with 30,000+ residents and 12,000+ registered voters. 75% of residents do not have children in the schools. I appreciate Killion sharing this background information with the community. 

5:50 – Killion stated that schools are the most regulated institutions in the state and held up a printed copy of the very lengthy Indiana Code Title 20. The school district reports to and is regulated by the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE), the State Board of Accounts (SBOA), and the Department of Local Government Finance (DLGF). He also mentioned the Indiana School Board Association (ISBA) which is a non-profit lobbying group that our school district pays to provide training to school board members. I attended an ISBA training this summer to learn more about the role of the school board. I found much of the information they provided to be very helpful, though some of what they suggested seemed motivated by trying to keep school board members compliant. For example, I was told that while school board members have the right to ask questions and discuss issues in public meetings, the ISBA suggests that individual school board members talk privately with school administrators to keep the public from misinterpreting. The individual leading my training explained that “the public may not know what is in their best interest” and he suggested that school board members should look to school administrators for guidance as to what is best for the community. I can’t express how strongly I disagree with these opinions and I hope our school board will continue to make steps towards increasing transparency and communicating with the public.

6:01 – Killion shared some of the history of our school district from 1892 until he became superintendent in 2007. He painted a picture of a school district in desperate trouble when he was hired. “We were just one disaster away from the state taking away the keys,” (a state takeover). Then, in 2008, it got worse. The state property tax reform reduced funding to school districts like ours (few disadvantaged students) and increased funding to schools with a larger fraction of students who receive welfare, are in foster care, or are English language learners. As an indication of how advantaged our student population is, in 2020 WLCSC has the 3rd lowest per-student state funding out of nearly 300 school districts. Back in 2008, the newly-created West Lafayette Schools Education Foundation came to the rescue, raising funds to save teacher jobs. However, this was only a short-term solution. For a long-term solution, Killion led a hard-fought campaign against a well-funded opposition group to get the public to vote for a referendum tax levy which provides the district with additional funding. Had it not been for the referendum passing in 2010 and again in 2017, our school district would have had to make massive cuts. I think that convincing the public to support the referendum has been Killion’s most important achievement as superintendent. It’s not just that the referendum passed, it’s that support for the referendum grew from 66% in favor in 2010 to 94% in favor in 2017. I think building community support for the schools is perhaps the most important role of the superintendent. Recently, some poor decisions and lack of public communication has likely reduced some of that community support for our schools. I sincerely hope that Killion will work to repair the damage.

6:22 – Killion defended the administration’s treatment of teachers. He stated that our school district has the 8th highest average teacher salary in the state and that our teachers have received a 3 percent or greater pay increase each year. He pointed out that class size has been constant since 2017 and that we have increased the total number of teachers in our schools. He displayed the certified staff report which gives the administration best guess about the reason each teacher left the district. Of the 33 teachers who left over the last two school years, Killion spoke with a few of them and none of them told him that the reason that they left was because school administrators were not supportive. Killion was emphatic in declaring that he listens to teachers. I was a teacher in our school district and have a different view of what conditions are like in our schools. Killion is correct that class size has been relatively constant since 2017, though class size increased significantly prior to this, especially for kindergarten classes which were historically kept smaller but increased from 17 to 22 students per class during Killion’s time as superintendent. For the 2017-2018 school year, I had 24 students in my kindergarten class. The increase in class size makes a big difference to teachers, especially those teaching grades K through 6. In general, I think teachers at WLES and WLIS have higher levels of frustration with the administration than those at the Jr/Sr HS where overall teacher satisfaction is higher, though there are certainly counter examples. One reason for this may be that in 2019, Killion officially notified all first-year teachers at WLES and WLIS, but not at the Jr/Sr HS, that the school board had authorized a reduction in force and that they would be fired if the school district could not find additional funds (read my description of this poor school board decision). Teachers don’t like working in districts where they are the first thing that gets cut. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, teachers in our district are afraid that administrators will retaliate if they speak up about issues. In recent years, teachers have tried to share anonymous surveys with Killion as well as have requested a climate audit. 

6:37 – Killion is very worried that state funding for public schools is going to decline even more than it already has. He spoke about his opposition to HB 1005 and SB 413. After 13 years of strong enrollment growth, the 2020-2021 school year started with a large enrollment drop. He doesn’t think the state’s enrollment projections for our district are accurate. Over the years, Killion has frequently talked about student enrollment declines as a big concern even though our school district has had consistent increases in enrollment. However, this year, I think he is right to be worried. Because of the pandemic, many families chose to homeschool their students and some transferred into other school districts. I’ve heard that homeschooling has been more common for Jr/Sr HS students than for WLES and WLIS students, though I haven’t seen the data so I’m not sure. If our school board had done a better job initially on the reopening plan, perhaps that would have kept more students enrolled in our schools? There is still time to ask these families what we could do better to get them to re-enroll their students before the next school year.

6:42 – Killion defended the decision to move forward on all the new construction projects. He gathered community feedback from the facilities committee and then presented a $50 million building plan in several town halls. Construction costs went up, and they ended up spending $84 million on the construction. The projects are what the community said that they wanted and that is why the school district went ahead despite the higher costs. I agree that there were some important construction and renovation needs in our schools. Perhaps not every aspect of these construction projects were “needs” but I think the larger worry is that the school board never explained to the community that they were going to spend $34 million more on these construction projects than we were told in all those town hall meetings. The school board should have considered adjusting the plans in response to the price increase. At a minimum, the community should have been told so we could provide feedback.

6:48 – Jan Herndon, a partner at IceMiller Legal Counsel, explained that WLCSC did not do anything illegal in the way that it approved the borrowing for the construction projects. The use of lease agreements through a building construction company is perfectly legal. Her firm checked to make sure that the school district had placed notices in the newspaper before each bond hearing and then held the bond hearings, as required by state law. She said that no court would invalidate the school district’s bonds. She also noted that across the last 77 school district building projects in the state, only 18 took the project to a community vote. The rest used the same procedure that our school district used. I don’t think anyone claimed that our school district did something illegal with respect to the funding of the recent construction projects. The complaint, as I understand it, is that we were told that the projects would cost $50 million and then the school board borrowed $95 million without telling the public or asking for feedback. It’s not illegal, but it makes sense that people are frustrated with the school board about this. 

6:59 – Brock Bowsher, an advisor with Baker Tilly (the firm that advised the school district on its borrowing), explained that his firm predicts that the assessed value of the homes, apartments, and businesses in our school district will increase at a rapid 3.58% per year which will increase the amount of property tax raised by the debt service levy. He is also assuming that the school district will not borrow any additional money over the life of these bonds/lease agreements (until 2039). Unlike traditional bonds, the school district’s lease agreements allow the debt payment to increase each year which makes current payments lower. Even with the assumed high growth rate in debt service tax revenue, the debt payments exceed projected revenue in each year until 2025. The school district borrowed $2.3 million more than was needed for construction in order to use this money to help make debt payments over the next 5 years. Interest rates were higher back when the school district issued the 2017 and 2018 bonds and so the district could save money by refinancing at lower interest rates (called refunding). Because of the way the bond contract works, the school district will save more if it waits a few years to refinance, as long as interest rates stay low. I did not find anything surprising in this presentation, but I very much appreciate that Killion included this as part of his state of the schools speech. This is the type of information that should have been shared with the community in 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020 before each decision to borrow additional funds. The undisputed fact is that the school district needs more than the debt service tax revenue in order to make the debt payments in each of the next several years. I am not a fan of the decision to borrow additional money in order to make the debt payments. I am also worried about what will happen if property values don’t go up as rapidly as projected. But, mostly I’m just disappointed that the school board allowed this to happen without telling the public. The money will have to come from school district funds that would have been used for other purposes, but instead will be used to pay for the construction. I wrote about this here.

7:17 – Marley asked a great question about how much cash his firm suggests that a school district should have on hand. Bowsher answered that they recommend 15% of annual expenditure. Marley then asked if the projected bond refunding savings were calculated assuming current interest rates or under the assumption that interest rates will likely go up in the future. Bowsher answered that he was assuming constant interest rates at today’s low levels. These were great questions. Like Marley, I’m also worried about the low cash-on-hand levels that our school district is headed for. Interest rates are at historically low levels now and we need the money now, so I appreciate that Marley is thinking about when to refinance the 2017 and 2018 bonds.

7:20 – Way to Go Awards: Killion took a break after nearly 2 hours of giving his state of the schools presentation and had administrators from each of the 3 schools (WLES, WLIS, WL Jr/Sr HS) recognize 9 students with the “Way to Go Award” for being great citizens. This tradition continued from last month and it was so wonderful to see each student come to the front individually while a school administrator shared why this student was chosen and then each student received a certificate. 

7:31 – State Representative Sheila Klinker spoke about the decline in funding from the state for public education. I wish our state teachers union (ISTA) was more effective in advocating for public education. They don’t seem to have much influence with the state legislature. Perhaps there is a better approach? Indiana is becoming a much more difficult place to be a teacher.

7:39 – Killion called for a 10 minute break

7:47 – Killion explained that the school district relies on experts when it makes decisions. He showed pictures of each of the construction projects and explained why each was needed. He said that there is still much more that needs to be done. Killion said that he thinks that kindergarten classrooms need more space and so he would like to see Happy Hollow transformed into an early childhood center for preschool and kindergarten. The food service situation at all three schools is much improved and we can now serve one quarter of the current in-person students at the Jr/Sr HS in just 12 minutes (1/3rd of students are virtual).

7:56 – Killion defended the way the school district handled the reopening plan and the outcomes. He emphasized that we need to take action to increase student enrollment. He asked that the community give the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee time to work. He said that he will work on improving school district communication with the community. He said he will continue to fight against state legislation that increases testing or diverts funds from public schools. He then showed a video clip of Jamie Vollmer, a school policy author, and made some concluding comments about working together rather than fracturing as a community. “This doesn’t mean that we can’t disagree, but we have to work together.” After that “apocalyptic letter” a few months ago, I think our community was fracturing. I hope Killion is serious about making some changes to bring people together. His promise that the school district will do better at communicating is a good step. I would also encourage him to put more effort into listening and actively seeking community and teacher feedback before decisions are made. The recent pattern of surprise school policy announcements followed by community frustration and petitions is not conducive to working together.

8:08 – Witt, Marley, and Karpick all made comments about how great the presentation was and how much they appreciate Killion as the leader of our school district. Shott said that he agreed but wanted to remind everyone that it’s the teachers that are the real heros. Everyone agreed.

8:12 – Jr/Sr HS Presentation: Dan Walbaum and Eric Ulrich shared the proposed changes to the Jr/Sr HS schedule that would begin in Fall 2021 (if we are not still dealing with Covid restrictions). They will be posting on the website the proposed schedule as well as a FAQ document. They invited anyone with comments or questions to email them:

This proposal will likely be put to a vote at the school board meeting next month, so I suggest sending your comments to all school board members as well so they will be aware of your views. Administrators do not generally inform school board members about community member questions or comments. Here is the list of school board members and emails:

I copied the proposed schedule that the administrators shared here:

I have included the following table that I put together for our current 2020-2021 bell schedule that the school sent out in September 2020. School administrators currently call period 5 with lunch as period 5 and 6 with afternoon classes being period 7 and 8. To make the comparisons simpler from the new proposal to current I have not given lunch and homeroom a period to match the proposed changes. 

The major changes have to do with lunch. The first is a closed campus at lunch to increase student safety. Currently, students can walk or drive away from the school for lunch. The second is that they will be shortening the lunch period. Also there would be three lunch groups rather than two. Walbaum and Ulrich explained that there isn’t room for all the students in the cafeteria with only two lunches if they close the campus.

They shared a long list of benefits of the proposed schedule change which I just copied here:

8:12 – Walbaum and Ulrich said that research shows that the later start time is better for students. This also provides for an earlier release which will give more family time or more time for sports practices. They said they have received some comments from community members and felt that the biggest pushback has been about the lunch period where students would only have 32 minutes for lunch plus a short homeroom period. They claimed that students really like homeroom and that it was one of the positive things that came out of this pandemic. They suggested that closing campus may be an equity issue because some students cannot afford to eat out for lunch and if these students see others getting to leave campus it makes them feel left out. I appreciated the administration sharing both the plan and their justification for the plan. Now that the school board and the community have been informed, the school board has the responsibility to listen to the students and community members before they vote. Incorporating some student/community suggestions may improve the plan. I list some of my comments here:

  • I was surprised that Walbaum and Ulrich said that students like homeroom. I’ve heard the opposite, though I am happy that they recognize that students need down time in the middle of the day. The homeroom situation is very teacher dependent (i.e. If the teacher allows students to socialize in the homeroom).
  • The timing of bus drop-off and school start time may be an equity issue. Buses would be scheduled to arrive by 7:50 in the new plan, 30 minutes before school starts. I suspect that bus ridership would decrease as many students will choose to get extra sleep. However, some students do not drive to school or have parents who can drive them to school and they may feel singled out by having to ride the bus in this new environment. I suspect that there may also be an increase in teenagers arguing with parents about transportation to school to avoid having to ride the bus.
  • I am disappointed that the new cafeteria was not designed to accommodate our current number of students using the existing schedule. Is it that the administrators were already planning to go to a closed campus with three lunch periods when they designed the new cafeteria or was it a planning mistake to have built a cafeteria that was too small?

The work session ended at 8:40. It was long, but I was happy that they shared this information.

WLCSC School Board Meeting Summary

8:41 – Karpick called the meeting to order. He called for a vote to approve the agenda and then to approve the minutes from the prior meeting.

Voted 7 out of 7

8:43 – Killion asked the school board to approve revisions to some school board policies in relation to Title 9. There were no questions or discussion. I continue to hope that someday the school board will tell us what policy change they are voting on. I find it unbelievable that the school board votes to approve policy changes without telling us what the policy change is. In his state of the school speech, Killion said that he will continue to advocate for public education by speaking to legislators about the bills they are considering, and yet our school board does not give our community the courtesy of knowing the content of the policies they are considering until weeks after the vote. This double standard is not acceptable.

    Voted 7 out of 7

8:44 – Ohlhaut asked for the school board to approve the signatory change on the extra-curricular PEFCU credit cards, because the previous signator has retired, that eventually they want to phase out . He also asked for approval for 3 Extra-Curricular credit cards for the high school with each having a limit of $5,000 from Huntington Bank.

    Voted 7 out of 7

8:45 – Sloat asked for approval for a debt service resolution with several parts. The first is to authorize the administration to use the balance of bond surplus funds (the $2.3 million of extra borrowing) towards debt repayment. The second is to grant the school administration the authority to initiate the bond refinancing process without needing to wait until the next school board meeting to ask for approval. Sloat suggested that the administration would potentially need to move quickly to take advantage of low interest rates. The resolution also gives the administration the authority to move the effect of the property tax caps (the circuit breaker) from the debt service fund to the operations fund. I think it is irresponsible that the school board borrowed so much money for construction that it couldn’t afford the payments and so they decided to borrow even more money to make the payments. Maybe I’m too fiscally conservative, but borrowing more money to be able to make debt payments just seems wrong. The circuit breaker part of the resolution completely invalidates any claim that teacher money is not being used to pay for the new construction. This resolution enables the administration to transfer money from the operations fund to the debt service fund. The school district needs more money in the debt service fund in order to make the debt payments. But, there is already never enough money in the operations fund to pay for all the non-classroom expenditures. So, the school district transfers money from the education and referendum funds to the operations fund. For example, in 2019 the school district transferred $1.4 million from the education fund to the operations fund and another $1.4 million from the referendum fund to the operations fund (documentation here).

Voted 7 out of 7

8:50 – Ohlhaut asked for approval to continue with the company Safe Harbor as the before- and after-school childcare program at WLES and WLIS. The contract is from June 1, 2021 – May 31, 2022. Their rates have not changed. Childcare programs are requirements of school districts (I.C. 20-26-5-1(a) and (c)). The school district either has to run the program or contract with an outside company. Yin asked if we seek feedback from parents about this program. Principal Psarros stated that we have not asked for feedback but also said that she hasn’t heard anything negative. Killion said that it is Safe Harbor’s responsibility to get feedback, not the school district’s. Yin followed up with questions about a discount for low income students as well as if the company provides a detailed activity plan to parents. Killion again responded to both these questions that it is up to the company to set rates and make programming and communications decisions and not the school district. I appreciated Yin asking these questions. Even though the childcare program is not run by our school, our school board needs information like this in order to decide if they should renew the contract. How else would the school board know if the particular company is serving our students and their families well? I don’t know how competitive the market is for these childcare programs, but our school board changed providers just 3 years ago. I would hope that the school board is seeking parent feedback and considering the experience of low-income families.   

Voted 7 out of 7

8:55 – Killion asked for approval of the personnel report. Karpick said that the board members had seen these in advance with some changes that came in late. Our school district does not allow the community to see these reports until after next month’s meeting when they approve the minutes, so there is no way for us to know what they are voting on.

    Voted 7 out of 7

8:55 – Ohlhaut asked for approval of the account payable. Schott asked why the amounts for payroll were different during the two pay periods and Ohlhaut said he would find out and let them know. 

    Voted 7 out of 7

8:58 Committee Reports:

  • Witt said the policy committee will not have more changes to review until May or June; She said the DEI committee met last week via zoom (because of snow) but plan to meet this week in person. She said that the committee is charged to make recommendations to the school board that will bring a culture shift and look at the bigger scope. She said the committee does not investigate or resolve individual discrimination complaints.
  • Schott said that the WLSEF has hired a new director – Wendi Ailor. She starts next week. They had 27 applicants.
  • Springer said the ice skating rink had to close early because of the warm weather; the dog park at Happy Hollow is closed for maintenance to reduce the mud and add some features.
  • Austin said that she is looking forward to the start of communication committee meetings next month.
  • Killion reported that he held the legally required discussion meeting with teacher union representatives. They talked about the Feb. 26th professional development which he stated was planned 18 months ago. They also discussed Purdue’s proposed change to the timing of spring break for 2022 and suggested that the school district should take this into consideration. I am not sure who plans these professional development sessions, but I am still surprised that when WL Care was asking that our school district provide diversity training for our staff that no one in the administration thought to mention that there was already a diversity training planned for February 2021. As for spring break, it sounds like Purdue may start a January term which will have them start winter term later which would put spring break at the beginning of April. It is a proposed plan but I appreciate Killion being aware and discussing it with the teachers union.

9:05 Communication from the Audience (non-agenda items)

  • Marydell Forbes, WLEA teachers union co-president, spoke about public education enemies. The first being Covid and the need to get kids in the classrooms (for this we need vaccines and teachers need vaccines). The second enemy is vouchers. We are #1 in nation for amount of money spent on vouchers and our legislators still continue to put money towards vouchers. 
  • Amber Vanmatre spoke about her concerns with the new proposed schedule changes at Jr/Sr HS. She likes that the proposed start time is pushed back a little bit which is great for children to get extra sleep but she thinks that this will only get kids at school 5 minutes later than they normally are at school so won’t give them much extra sleep. She is really worried about the lunch time being reduced. She currently has 3 kids at the high school. Pre-covid the oldest would come home with friends for lunch. It was a great time for the kids to relax and unwind. Her sons’ favorite time of day was the open lunch. They could get outside, get fresh air, grab lunch, and play basketball at friends’ homes. She pointed out that moving from 6th grade with lunch and recess (sometimes a second recess as well) to the junior high with only a 32 minute lunch would be a challenge. Kids need down time. She said the open lunch has been a big benefit for her family. She said that we are one of the only schools that offer the open lunch and that this is a reflection of the amazing kids that we have. We require a lot from our students and put a lot of pressure on them and it is vital to give them that time to unwind. She also asked that the school board get more opinions and input from students and the community. Amber did a great job at sharing her concerns. She shared some thoughts that I have heard from many others. I agree that we ask a lot of our kids and allowing them to have down time as well as some freedom during lunch is a big benefit.

9:15 Karpick adjourned the meeting

Future Meetings (calendar link)

  • April 5 at 6:30pm at HH LGI Room

This is not the official minutes from the school board meetings. I am a parent of students in the WLCSC and my thoughts are given in italics. The official minutes are released after the approval of those minutes at the next school board meeting (a month from now). Previous agendas, minutes, and audio recordings can be found at the WLCSC website.

Abbreviations:

  • CFO – Chief Financial Officer
  • WLCSC – West Lafayette Community School Corporation
  • WLES – West Lafayette Elementary School
  • WLIS – West Lafayette Intermediate School
  • Jr/Sr HS – West Lafayette Junior/Senior High School
  • HH – Happy Hollow Building (previously was intermediate school before WLIS was built)
  • LGI – Large Group Instruction room
  • DOE – Department of Education
  • WL CARE – West Lafayette Coalition for Anti-Racist Education

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